In Idaho Tribal Case, High Court Revisits Scope of States' Rights

Article excerpt

In an unusual court case, an Idaho Indian tribe is attempting to reclaim aboriginal land under a lake and two rivers in a remote section of the American West.

In one sense, the fight between the Couer d'Alene Tribe and the State of Idaho is a simple property dispute. But in a larger sense, the case will determine whether a tribe has the right to sue state officials. Thus it will help clarify where the US Supreme Court stands on the balance of power between the states and the federal government - an important issue before the court this term.

One of the key cases last term, Seminole Tribe v. Florida, also took up an Indian claim - with the court, in a strongly contested 5-to-4 decision, ruling that states are protected from suits in federal court. The Idaho dispute is one of two difficult cases the high court will take up Oct. 16 that may set legal precedent. The other deals with protests around abortion clinics. In this case, the court must weigh free-speech restrictions - in particular a 15-foot protective zone around those entering and leaving clinics in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. - against the right of clinic staff and patients to go about their business free of threats and harassment. Abortion-rights supporters want the Supreme Court to reaffirm the right of lower-court judges to order injunctions limiting the behavior of anti-abortion groups. Abortion protesters want the court to severely limit, if not remove, the right of judges to make such rules, which they say are unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The case, Schecnck v. Pro-Choice Network, is being closely watched not only by those involved in the abortion debate, but also by labor and civil liberties groups concerned about new curbs on political expression. The abortion clinic case is expected to refine a 1994 Supreme Court ruling, Madsen v. Women's Health Center, which created a set of general rules governing where and how anti-abortion protesters could confront patients and staff outside a clinic. Madsen stated that lower-court judges should "burden no more speech than necessary" in creating injunctions. Hence, lower courts across the country have interpreted Madsen in different ways - creating an enormous range of differently shaped buffer zones and "rules of engagement" between protesters and individuals entering clinics. …